This piece is about the American dream of equal opportunity. This work is specifically focused on the just world hypothesis and how it leads to the misconception that is the American dream.
The American Dream is in part the belief that everyone has equal opportunity. People think if they just work hard enough that they can be well off. On the other side people who are well off tend to think it is their work ethic and intelligence that got them there, not their lucky birth (qtd. in Frost para 3 & The Economist “Cost of the American Dream para 4). Both of these delusions come from the idea of equal opportunity.
People have an innate desire to believe that the world is generally a fair place. They want this to be true so badly that they will manipulate what they perceive in their minds to keep the illusion of fairness alive (qtd. in Andre et. al para 3). This phenomenon is called the just world hypothesis, and it is so prevalent in humans that it can sometimes cause them to blame the victims of injustice. This usually occurs when there is lasting harm being done to the victim and there is nothing the observer can do to fix it. This can happen to victims of rape, social injustice, or in other similar circumstances. Studies have shown that when people are shown someone in pain and have no way of helping the person, they think less of the person receiving what appears to be injustice (qtd. in Andre et. al para 3). This is because humans’ desire for a just world is so strong that they will think badly of someone they have no reason to dislike just to persuade themselves that the world is fair (qtd. in Andre et. al para 5).
The fact that people still believe in the American Dream of equal opportunity is in part due to the just world hypothesis. If the world were a just place like people want to believe, then everyone would be given the same chance and where they ended up in the world would be due to their own actions and they would “deserve” their place. This same principle applies to people who are not doing well economically. When people who are well off see someone in economic hardship, they are not able to relieve the suffering they are witnessing, and the recipient of the injustice will continue to suffer due to that injustice (qtd. in Andre et. al para 4). When people see this their desire to see the world as fair prevents them from seeing any injustice, just like the person in pain in the studies of the just world hypothesis. This leads people to think people who are not as privileged had the same chance they just didn’t work hard enough or they aren't smart enough. This satisfies their need for the world to be fair. It is also disturbingly similar to the belief in the American dream of equal opportunity. What really allows this dilution to persist is that it is speculated that the people suffering from injustice have the same desire to see the world as fair, making them think that they deserve what they have and do not have even though their misfortune is not because of any fault of their own or their actions. This has not been proven by any studies because any study testing it would be unethical however the idea has been proposed by some psychologist.
The American Dream of equal opportunity is self-destroying. People refuse to see injustice due to the just world hypothesis. Because of this people do not see that the American Dream is just a dream and that the world is not just. When people will not acknowledge that there is a problem then how could they possibly fix it. The belief that the world is just creates complacency, it allows people to look the other way when something is wrong. Some people believe in the just world more than others, this does not appear to be only because of their experiences, instead it is correlated to a tendency to admire current political leaders, and negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups of people (qtd. in Lehrer para 9).
The just world hypothesis is backed by experiments, and was first demonstrated in Melvin Lerner in 1965 (qtd. in Lehrer para 3-6). If people think the world is just they make it unjust. The American dream is based on the idea that America is fair, this means that a belief in the American dream prevents the actualization of the American dream.
Andre Claire , and Manuel Velasquez. “The Just World Theory.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 13 Nov. 2015.
Frost, Bradford. “An Equal Opportunity for the American Dream?” Huffingtonpost, Huffingtonpost, 2 Sept. 2012, 07/03/2012 04:24 pm ET.
Lehrer, Jonah. “A Just World.” The Atlantic, 1 Sept. 2009.
“The cost of the American dream.” The Economist, 8 Sept. 2017.